RealTime IT News

Is 'Tru2Way' True Two-Way TV?

Remember the days of three network channels? Then came cable TV with 50 channels, then more. Now, the next horizon in television is looking more like true two-way connectivity like the Web or the Internet.

Brian Roberts of Comcast corporation stepped up to this bold announcement during a keynote address at CES by noting the beginning of yet another revolutionary moment in communications.

He called it Comcast 3.0, but in truth, the next version of cable's on demand content is built on the DOCSIS 3.0 standard, which sets downstream traffic transfer rates from cable providers to homes.

Roberts and Comcast call it Tru2way technology, a set of tools and services for the cable network, and a new term for cable internet speed: Wideband.

This may be more than just a new blend of acronyms; it could create a new generation of interconnected media devices. If adopted by the industry, Tru2way will be the language of cable television just as HTML is the language of the Internet and allow the equivalent of surfing Comcast content.

The ability to do this comes down to new Comcast IP infrastructure, called the DOCSIS 3.0 standard. It would utilize a new cable modem, which increases from 1 channel of analog TV dedicated to data up to to 4 channels delivering up to 100 megabits per second. Thus an HD movie can be delivered to the home in as little as 4 minutes.

Comcast's future is a three step process. First, the company is announcing a new infrastructure and connectivity model to access and deliver content to the home. Next, the number one cable provider plans to offer a much higher data rate architecture to deliver that content. Finally, a new Web portal is to be unveiled, which will combine all the services that Comcast provides.

Comcast is borrowing a move from a playbook of a certain penguin: open source. Tru2way is the new name for the "OpenCable Applications Platform" (OCAP). This represents a huge move away from the closed set top boxes that today act as a sort of firewall between the user and the content offered by Comcast and other cable companies.

By making the cable box an open standard, it can be embedded into televisions, set top boxes, DVRs like Tivo, and other electronic devices to give consumers new ways to enjoy movie and video content anywhere, anytime. Viewers will no longer need a special remote and tangle of wires to enjoy all that cable has to offer.

With the cable box effectively built into the TV and other components, consumers will simply bring the TV set home from the store and plug it in to begin receiving all available cable channels and interactive services. Once such a device was announced by Panasonic: a product called Anyplay, which is a dockable combination of DVR and DVD integrated into a portable player.

But Tru2way goes beyond a simple cable box decoder: in the future, providers from well known media giants down to startup and entrepreneurial companies can deliver services and choices that we can’t even imagine today. Companies can develop applications and devices that integrate the Tru2way network into what Roberts calls the "Media Center Eco-system." Applications will work on all compatible cable systems in the United States as well as in other countries adopting the standard.

Comcast is promising Tru2way by the end of this year and LG, Samsung, Motorola and Panasonic are already on board, with more to follow. Microsoft, for example, will enable Tru2way on future releases of Windows Media Center and the Xbox. Panasonic is working to develop a "plug and play," interactive-digital-cable-ready TV set, with Tru2way technology inside.

Comcast has delivered 6 billion on-Demand movie views since 2003, six times more than movies rented on Netflix in it's first 8 years, Roberts told attendees at CES.

Comcast is focused on expanding its on-demand offerings dramatically. Further, a project called "Infinity" has a very ambitious goal: delivering over 100,000 and eventually millions of titles to the consumer. As Brian stated "you're never going to want to get off the couch."

This new cable system architecture delivers content directly to the viewing device, such as the TV itself. "We want to provide every piece of video content that a producer wants to put on TV," he added, "any conceivable kind of video...with all kinds of content creators large and small."

The content owner would get to decide if this access would be free, supported by ads, subscription based or pay-per-view. By adding user supplied content from sources such as YouTube, the choices would grow from hundreds of thousands to millions of choices.

Finally, the Web portal Fancast will allowing access to everything that Comcast does provide, will provide, and beyond to even include brick and mortar cinemas, other web resources like iTunes, and even to competitors such as Netflix. At its launch, Fancast.com is offering 3000 hours of streaming video, 10,000 movie trailers, 50,000 celebrity photos and over 11 million pages of video entertainment. What if you PVR is not made by Comcast or you are not in the Comcast network? Not problem: Fancast is other-vendor friendly.

One issue remains: how will Comcast will manage the digital rights that have stymied this type of open access in the past? SonicBlue, then maker of ReplayTV (initial competitor of Tivo) was sued out of existence by a coalition of 28 media companies because it introduced commercial skip and online internet sharing features. ReplayTV also encouraged the open source community to create tools that allowed recorded content to be shared with laptop PCs so, for example, someone flying to Hong Kong could catch up on Boston Legal episodes.

This is the very type of functionality that Comcast is claiming as "new and improved" yet it has been around for over five years already. How can Comcast hope to open cable's content when this act was brutally punished by the media companies in the past? Perhaps Comcast will avoid commercial skip and peer to peer Internet sharing. (ReplyTV still exists as both a stand-alone unit and PC hardware/software application, owned by D&M holdings).

From 50 channels to project infinity, and beyond. For many, now that the cable network has a language, who will teach it to speak, and, more importantly, what will they teach it to say?